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Thursday, April 28, 2011

What I'm Reading: Unlikely Allies

Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American RevolutionMy college's alumni association runs a monthly book club.  The discussions are online and all of the books discussed are written by alumni or professors.  Although I have never participated in the discussion, I frequently add the books to my to-read list.  This is how I encountered the very interesting Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution by Joel Richard Paul.  I honestly would not have even known this book existed without my alumni association altering me to it.

The title here speaks to the plot.  This is the story of 3 key people who helped America to win the Revolution from Paris, people history has either forgotten or disparaged:  American business man and founding father, Silas Deane, French playwright Caron de Beaumarchais (who wrote Barber of Seville ), and the enigmatic Chevalier d'Eon.  Silas Deane was sent to Paris to try to secure arms for the Americans, Beaumarchais was rich and famous and believed in the Americans, and the Chevalier d'Eon began as a spy for Louis XV, but was scorned by Louis XVI.  The Chevalier d'Eon also adds interest here because his gender became the talk of the continent.  He/she moved back in forth between the two, allowing him/her to get information no one else could obtain.

The appeal here is that this is a book in which American history set right.  Paul is looking at the extremely important people that history has left behind.  They were on the winner's side but not perceived as the winners themselves, so they are finally getting the treatment they deserved.  In Deane's case specifically, his work was essential to the American cause, but his detractors fought to stop him from getting the recognition he deserved, so much so in fact, that for much of history he was referred to as  traitor.

This is a complex story, told in a colloquial fashion.  There is intrigue about spies and double dealing.  There is suspense, even though we know the outcome.  The tone plays off of this as it is equal measures serious history and fun anecdotes; such as the obsession with the Chevalier's gender (and issue which is not resolved until his/her death).

There is also a cautionary message here.  Paul shows us how badly things could have gone if not for the hard work of these three people.  For example, we learn that Deane's persistence at getting French arms across the ocean without any word from his countrymen or any hard cash led to the American rebels first major victory at Saratoga; a win which was the tipping point at which the Americans began to win the war.  Without Deane, could we have won the war?

The final sections of the book in which Paul talks about separating the people who made history, their personal motives, and their dark secrets from their great accomplishments is worth reading the entire book for.  He asks the modern reader some tough questions like: Do we think less of what these great men accomplished if we see them in their true colors?  Does it matter as long as they fought for right?

This book will keep you reading because of the spies, double dealing, and new twist it adds to our understanding of the American Revolution from our grade school days, but Paul's conclusion will send you off thinking about history, in general, in a whole new way.

I listened to the audio.  It was a nice even narration.  The male reader was unobtrusive and complimentary to the story.  I appreciated listening also as I have trouble pronouncing French words, and there are quite a few here.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  new twist to old history, compelling, intriguing.

Readalikes:  Readers who don't mind seeing our "heroes" portrayed in a more realistic light (warts and all) would also enjoy The Hemmings of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, or the fictionalized version, Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase-Ribould, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic by Joseph Ellis, or  the even-handed biographies of American heroes by David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Ron Chernow.

There are also many novels set during the American Revolution.  Your best bet is to start with Howard Fast.  Two authors who write multiple series featuring the people behind the headlines, which also show history in a similar warts and all tone, including some set during the American Revolution, are Jeff Shaara and Bernard Cornwell.  Both are great sure bet authors for people who want historical fiction, set during times of war, with great characters and plenty of action.

People might want to read more about Louis XVI, Beaumarchais and the famous character he created, Figaro, or the European side of the American Revolution.  I have suggested one book for each of these topics, but the links will lead you to more options.

And for something completely different, what about a sexy manga series featuring the Chevalier d'Eon.

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